Calculating the real cost
The dangers of childhood stress
Fagundes, an assistant professor in Health Disparities Research, is charting new territory with his research on stress and cancer. As director of the Behavioral Mechanisms Explaining Disparities lab, Fagundes and his colleagues use psychology, autonomic psychophysiology and psychoneuroimmunology to investigate the body’s response to life stresses and their link to cancer.
“Combining the three methods allows for evaluation of interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems, while also studying the interface of mind and body and its behaviors,” Fagundes says.
In a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry, Fagundes investigated the impact of early-life stress on basal cell carcinoma. The study showed that people who experience childhood adversity such as abuse, neglect and family problems are at a greater risk for a poor immune response to the tumor.
“This can have a significant impact on a person’s physical health later in life and has been linked to morbidity and mortality from many chronic diseases,” Fagundes says.
Fagundes also is investigating how stress impacts posttreatment symptoms, such as fatigue, pain and sleep, in breast cancer survivors. For example, a study underway examines how stress among married couples impacts inflammatory levels. A key biological mechanism underlying post-treatment cancer symptoms, these levels are associated with cancer recurrence.
The study involves intentionally creating conflict between breast cancer survivors and their partners to measure stress levels. It also tracks how well they manage conflict and resolve their differences.
The effect of other stressors, including the couple’s socioeconomic status, is examined as well.
“While all marriages have stress, that combined with a serious illness such as cancer can negatively impact patients’ quality of life,” Fagundes says.